Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Human Interface

Continuing yesterday's post, I will pause and send the gentle reader to the following link about Angry Birds ... be sure and read it.

If the reader has wondered how to explain, exactly, why your table-top game is vastly superior to any computer simulation of D&D that exists, here is your answer.  It has nothing to do with the amount of creativity you provide compared to, say, DDO.  It has nothing to do with the tactile sense of having your character in hand, as opposed to numbers written on a screen.  It has nothing to do with the drinks and the cheezies and the feeling of camaraderie at the table.  You have leapt to those things as an explanation because you've been short for one - that being the most glaring non-computerized evidence you can find.  You are like the detective who assumes that if the body was carried in by the tide, it's clear and definite proof that the victim drowned - there's no need to look for bullet holes.

Now, I'm not saying that you don't enjoy the camaraderie.  I'm not saying the tactile sense of having your character in hand isn't lovely.  I'm not saying you're not creative.  If you've seized upon those conclusions, this goes a long way towards why you're such a crappy detective - you can't even read a paragraph without detecting the critical causality denial.  Those are great things about the game, but they are not the reason the game is great.

There are those who presume that I am a simulationist.  They attach that description to me in the same way that one calls out someone who denies the holocaust.  They think that I think making the world real is what makes the world interesting ... and they know that's bullshit, because their worlds aren't real in the least and yet their worlds are just as interesting as mine (so they presume - no one knows for sure).  They don't do anything like the kind of work I do, so they laugh up their sleeves at my total waste of time ... it's not needed to make a good game!

They're right.  Oh, not that I'm wasting my time, but that all this creation in necessary to create a good game.  I don't believe that.  I do believe the in depth creation is intensely interesting and divinely satisfying, particularly at the end of the task, but that's an entirely different post.  I agree that none of it is needed to play a good game of D&D.

Some years ago, there were a group of Chilean miners who were trapped for weeks following a collapse.  All told, it took 69 days to free them.  They had access to the surface "with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit" ... and I remember at the time a lot of my more mundane-minded co-workers talking about how crazy they'd get being stuck underground with limited light sources for that long.

I know what I would do.  I would teach them all to play D&D.  It might be a bit odd for the surface people to hear a request for dice ... but I promise you I could create adventures for my fellows without the need for any maps, any character sheets - and even any dice if it came to that.  Naturally, it helps that I already have a tremendously detailed conception of the actual world in my head, and that my fellows would understand my descriptions of crossing fields in France because they understood what France was without my having to give that background.  All the same, the actual detail my world includes isn't necessary to making a good roleplaying game.

I have made the point before, years before, but it is one of those that needs to be said often to get it in people's heads.  It is not what you tell your players, it is in what you don't tell your players.  It is in what you hold back.  You have to give them information, yes - you have to make that information interesting and worth reading.  Consider this post thus far.  I've been talking, I've been filling up the paragraphs with ideas and proposed circumstances and argument.  I've been interesting.  But what is better is the fact that as you're reading this, you're thinking, "What the hell is he on about?  Is it this?  I bet it's this.  I bet when I get to the end of this post he's going to tell me something I already know."

That's a possibility ... but you're still reading, none-the-less.  I have your attention.  I don't have it because I've blown your mind with my observations - I have it because you're in the process of investigating the mystery I'm creating by ordering those observations in a very deliberate way.

Take a typical opening to a typical module.  WOW, says the module.  Look at this really amazing castle-slash-terrifying hole in the wall-slash-tiny indescrete shack that is nevertheless ominous.  What will you do?  Careful!  Careful, it could go off like a bomb!

The descriptions of such moments that you're likely to read are designed to IMPRESS YOU.  Pardon me, that wasn't quite enough.  They're designed to


As if in some way words on paper and descriptions of castles have any power to get past that media-drowned socialization you've learned to live with.  Your daily lives are spent shuffling from one attempt to impress you to the next, and for most people in marketing, making an impression is as far into the human psyche they're able to get.

How many games have you sat in where the DM began the adventure with a long, rambling description of the town or the local king and his exploits, or the frightening Smaug-like power of the local dangerous monster the party is now expected to kill?  Quite a lot, I'm sure.  Commonly, terror and interest is presumed to derive from something great an magnificent ... so DMs try hard to create that in the hopes of waving enough flags at you that you'll bite.  It's the Michael Bay rule of DMing.

The next alternative is that which is employed, nowadays, by the implementation of the subtle and yet altogether obvious clue that somehow the participants in a movie blithely ignore but which every genre-savvy horrorophile recognizes instantly.  Call it the Stanley Kubrick method of filmmaking.  Have the camera linger way, way too long on something completely unimportant, so that the audience can see instantly that this thing is incredibly important.  Then slowly drag the rest of the film along showing exactly how important it is.

(It really wasn't invented by Kubrick.  He was stealing body and soul from Jean-Luc Godard ... but Americans don't know that)

Now, of course, anytime the camera lingers for a split-second on anything its like holding up a billboard the size of the screen: TAKE NOTE OF THIS SHOT.  And DMs run a lot of their games like that.  The dragon is missing a claw, the third gravestone on the left is a different color than the other gravestones, etc., etc.  Sadly, this leads to overthinking, which has massively spoiled many a campaign.

The subtle clue is just another form of making an impression - one that worked in the 50s and 60s, but one which now is so hopelessly overused that it might as well be an elephant eating daisies holding the gun that shot Kennedy, dictating his memoirs to six Tibetan monks sitting on a carpet made from the Dalai Lama.

The reader has to understand that these things - these modes of making an impression, along with many others, are gimmicks, and they're unnecessary.  The 'overthinking' comic above is the proof; players will make up their own reasons to get interested in things, if only you as the DM will stop trying to tell them shit.  All they need is a fair description of their surroundings, without any of the buttons you'll find in a video game.  All they need to is have it driven home that they don't know everything about the environment, they CAN'T know everything about the environment, and what they CAN learn will be given when they go out looking for it.

No computer game can do that.  A computer game can't refuse to throw the dice (generate the number) until it is good and ready.  A computer game can't decide there's something under the bed, that never could have been seen before by the party, because at a given moment it's been hit with inspiration ... and once the thing under the bed has been installed, the computer can't decide when it matters.

Everything about DMing is timing.  It isn't about what's there, it's about how it manifests!  Not just in game terms, but in your personal, human presentation of it:

"Yes, the door opens!  Behind, you see a large, massive white ... wait, wait ..."  DM opens a book, rifles through it a moment, mutters, "Damn, you're kidding me."  Puts book down.  "Yeah, its huge.  It fills the large, open well at the center of the room.  It seems to be - wait.  Has the fighter got his sword out?"  Fighter answers, and the DM says, "Okay.  It's feeling a bit heavy, you're not sure why, it might have something to do with the damage you took earlier.  In fact, you're all feeling a bit down right now.  It's as though something has gotten inside you."  Party begins to chatter about that, asking questions, the DM gives curt, quick, non-descriptive answers.  "Anyway," the DM continues.  "The large white thing is quivering.  It looks vaguely like water, but it is sort of ballooned up from the edges of the well, perhaps a foot, and inside there might be things moving ... or it might be that the thing itself is alive."

Interrupt yourself.  Change up what you're talking above.  Move quickly from one aspect to the next.  Don't give a linear description of anything.  Talk about the room for a couple of sentences, then the creature, then what the air is like, then what the party is feeling, then more on the creature and so on.  DON'T explain overmuch.  Speak in vague, ill-defined specifics.  It's "huge," not "15 feet across."  If the party asks how big, it's "as large as the living room you're in," adding, "give or take."  Nothing is purely one color - it is white with red striations ... it is white with little blobs of algae green ... it is white but it wavers towards gray. 
DON'T let the party get too involved making theories about what a thing is, not if they're somewhere dangerous.  When they've talked enough, make something happen.  It doesn't have to be a real thing.  The large white mass releases a bubble that reaches the surface and pops.  The large white mass gives a gurgle.  The large white mass shifts so that the balance of it is towards the right side of the pool.  IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT.  The party is trying to decide if they should fireball, lightning bolt, fight at all, run away, try to parley, etc.

Wait for them to make up their minds.  Do not have the thing attack.  It has been quite comfortable for god knows how long waiting in this room, it probably is very tired from a long eternity's gurgling and has shows to watch.  Whatever.  The point is that it isn't, no matter what it looks like, what it appears to look like, or that it is exactly what it appears to look like.  That is information you must, must absolutely, keep to yourself until the party commits itself one way or the other.  Then all hell may then break loose.

The party must commit to everything that happens in your world.  You cannot lead them there.  You cannot put signs along the way.  The less they know about anything, where they are, where they're going, what they're going to find, who's watching them, what is it all for, why the hell they are doing this, etc., the better the game it will be.  No computer can do that.  A computer can only offer certain causality.  It takes a human interface to produce uncertainty, and therefore massive self-doubting insecurity.

Sort of like living in the real world, right?


Quincy Jones said...

"...I could create adventures for my fellows without the need for...any dice if it came to that."

I'll bite. Worst case scenario: How would you run a diceless game? Give players piles of rocks for a currency system? Genuinely curious, just in case I'm ever trapped in a collapsed mine.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, it would take a bit of thinking, but then I'd have time for that, wouldn't I?

There are other motivations than money. Dice can be replaced with rock-paper-scissors or even "what number am I thinking?" Generate a mystery, involved the players into it, spin it out as long as possible. "The adventure to find the pearl necklace of Amon-Ra."

I ran for quite awhile in my online campaign where, after the party were taken by bandits, there was no need to throw any dice, as they worked out their situation, were set free, and started on their way to Greece. It's only a matter of leaning events in the campaign to interaction rather than confrontation.

In a mine, you're pretty much working against very few better things to do. The tolerance level for a more esoteric, intellectual campaign is somewhat higher than ordinary.